A Day In The Life Of A Dusky Field Assistant

by Dusky Isaac

You hear the alarm ringing.

You get up. It’s 5:30am in the morning.

You brush your teeth, get dressed, eat your breakfast, and pack your essentials. By 6am, you’re out the door.

You make the journey to the sampling site.

Your Michael Jackson playlist plays on the stereo as you drive up the winding Penang coastal road as street lamps guide your way.

You see the dark forest vegetation to your left, and the open black sea to your right.

You hear the faint sound of waves crashing over MJs iconic “hee hee”.

You park the car on the side of the road. You’ve reached the sampling site. You check your watch. It’s 6:45am.

Thick vegetation. I am always looking forward to step into the unknown adventure of each day.

You put on a pair of arm sleeves, grab your binoculars, grab your backpack and lock the car. You find your field sampling buddy waiting just ahead and give a wave to her.

You turn to your 5 o’clock. You see the sun creeping up from the sea horizon. But it is still mostly dark, so you must watch your step when entering the forest.

From the outside, it looks like leaves surrounding a black hole, ready to suck you in. Your mind throws you a little fear, but you know there is nothing there that can hurt you. And so you step into the dark.

You trudge carefully along the uneven forest floor. “Hock, hock” you hear. Then the rustling of leaves, twigs snapping, and objects falling to the ground. Then a high-pitched cry, “EEEEE”.

Chin up, eyes up. You see branches moving. You spot a dark silhouette of something against the grey sky. You grab your binoculars and point them towards the silhouette. You adjust the focus, and there it is! A Dusky Langur, sitting on a branch. Round spectacles, thick lips, nipples visible. Leng Lui.

What a pretty girl. You pan your binoculars to the left and to the right. You see more individuals. Some feeding, some walking, some smaller, some larger. The group is awake and active now.

You check the time. 7am. Time to begin the first scan. You turn on the GPS, pull out your phone and open up the data sampling spreadsheet.

Your partner is also looking up at the group, trying hard to ID them. “Female, sitting, stratum 1”, she says. You know the codes by heart, and you note them down.

She continues to scan for other individuals. “Male, leaping, stratum 1”. You note this down. Pause. “Juvenile, feeding, young leaves, stratum 2, Ficus”. You note that down. You check the time. It’s 5 past 7. The end of the first scan of the day. Three scans against a dark greyish sky, you think to yourself. Not bad for the first scan.

The schedule of the day goes, 5 minutes of scan with 10-minute break. This carries on until just about mid-afternoon. The Sun rises to light up the sky. Its rays feed warm energy to all the living things around you. You and your sampling buddy continue to witness the langur group’s activities.

Jit Tao (Sunny), a subadult female dusky langur feeding on a Syzygium fruit.

8 to 10am. The group travels deeper into the forest. Ah Huat, the alpha male is the one leading the group.

The group constantly stops to feed on various tree species like Ficus and the yellow flame tree. The juveniles and infants are more active and playful.

10 to 10:15am. The group has slowed down their movement. There is some grooming behaviour between the adult females and Ah Huat. Most of the infants and juveniles are glued to the females, nursing now.

10:30am. The group huddles up together, silent and resting. Ah Huat and the adult males situate a little distant from the group huddle, keeping a lookout for threats.

Sometimes between scans, you have a nice chat with your sampling buddy. Wherever the Langurs go, you follow.

For them up in the forest canopy, it may be a straight path. But for you on the forest floor, it is a complicated maze with nasty traps that can get you if you aren’t careful. Tree liana and fallen branches; Thorny plants and poisonous leaves; deep potholes and porous soil, all prevent your way forward. Ant trails, wasp nests and even giant centipedes or snakes may await you behind the next tree. But your greatest foe is the swarms of gigantic jungle mosquitoes. You are at constant war with them. Looking to attack any bit of your exposed skin, even managing to puncture through your clothes. You’ve learnt from your past experience to wear arm sleeves when sampling to ward off these soldiers.

Your senses are dialled to 11, always on the lookout for these kinds of hazards and obstacles. Climbing over, crawling under, going up steep slopes and down steeper hills. You must navigate your way through these conditions. Yet after navigating through these obstacles, you still need to keep an eye out for the dusky langur group up in the trees. Sometimes you can see them clearly and can identify them through the leaves and branches. Other times, you only catch a glimpse of movement. But when you follow it and look up, all you see are trees. As if you were chasing a spirit or a shadow. This is the job.

It’s 11:15am. You’re scrambling to catch up to the last of the group to get at least one scan from the group. Although you can’t see where the langurs are moving, your excellent intuition tells you that they have headed 30 degrees to your right, roughly 20 metres ahead. But this is uncharted territory. The pathway is virtually non-existent and there are countless vines and new saplings in the way. You think of those laser scenes in spy movies which the spy must navigate through. So you duck down, climb over, lean to the left, lean to the right. You get to the spot where you believe the langurs to be, but there is just no opening in the tree canopies to sight them. You don’t even hear the rusting in the leaves and branches. Sigh. Another shadow chase.

You check the time. It’s 11:20am and you’ve missed the scan. Then, you hear intense movement in the trees. The next second, you see a dusky langur hop down onto the forest floor just 5 metres ahead of you. And then another joins the first langur on the forest floor. You’ve never seen them on the forest floor before. Playful juveniles, hopping around, shoving each other, grappling and wrestling just like human children.

Just as you’re witnessing this fascinating play behaviour, you hear another rustle of branches and leaves. It’s coming from directly above you. You look up. It’s Ah Hua curiously peering down at you.

It’s Ah Hua curiously peering down at you.

She continues to leap down to the sapling tree on your right. And then, you are face to face with Ah Hua. A meter apart, directly eye-level. She’s staring at you, and you’re staring at her. Her tiny hands and feet evolved so well to make those incredible acrobatic leaps. The minute wrinkles and spots on her face. Her fur, was so fluffed and bushy, with spectacles giving her a cheekily innocent look. Apart from her outer appearance, you can finally see into Ah Hua’s eyes. Dark brown pupils, so similar to ours that you can just tell the intelligence of this creature. A certain self-awareness and consciousness of her own being.

Millions of years of evolution since humans branched off from dusky langurs. Like you were just meeting a long-lost cousin. At that moment you develop a connection, a sort of mutual understanding. Just as you have been observing the group of langurs, Ah Hua has been observing you just the same. You can’t help but wonder how many of the trillions of cells in the human body are the same as those of Ah Hua’s. You are Ah Hua, as much as Ah Hua is you.

And then Ah Hua darts her focus elsewhere and leaps away to rejoin her group. A snap back to reality. You notice the juveniles who had been playing had also disappeared up to the forest canopy once again. Despite their sudden disappearance, you begin to feel the natural forest surrounding, teeming with immense life. Such beauty and wonder in every living creature. Everything is perfectly crafted to exist around you. Just for a moment, you shut your eyes and absorb this energy. You open your eyes and see your sampling buddy looking at you, smiling. She understands too, the power of the forest. Letting nature be wild and free is the only way it can exist. Now you are back in search of the dusky langur group.

The day continues. Catching mosquitoes, navigating tropical terrain, recording data, chit-chat and of course watching the amazing dynamics and interactions of the langurs.

Forest surrounding teeming with immense life

You end the last scan at 1:30pm, feeling a little saddened that you have to leave the group.

You feel the langurs have taken you in as part of their troupe, allowing you to observe their day-to-day lives in such proximity.

You wave goodbye to them and save the GPS track record. You and your buddy head back down the hill to the coastal road where you parked.

You reach your car and bid farewell to your sampling buddy.

You begin your journey back home.

Whilst driving you reflect upon the day’s sampling. The play behaviour between the juveniles; the nurturing females nursing their infants; the grooming behaviour between the group’s adults; the closely huddled group during nap times; and the protective males looking out for the group.

It was such a beautiful sight to witness how closely knit the langur group was. They seemed so content with their small and secluded way of life.

You envy them for that.

Apart from that, you recall the moment when Ah Hua so boldly came down to meet you face-to-face. It showed a pure sense of curiosity with no intention to do any harm.

You feel as though you’ve developed a sort of spiritual connection with Ah Hua, the langur group and the forest.

Something you feel that much of the human population is missing today.

Despite all the mosquitoes, plants and animals, field sampling gives you a day in the week to deeply reconnect with nature.

A safe space and sanctuary to ease all your burdens.

You can’t wait to return again next time.

Signing off to Singapore,


*Interested in joining our research team to observe Dusky Langurs? Click here for more information.

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